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Marissa Lingen

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Not writing the phone book [Aug. 13th, 2016|03:14 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I often hear people say of actors they particularly like, “Oh, I could watch them read the phone book.” You never hear that about writers, “I would read it if they wrote the phone book.” And there’s a reason for that. A major part of being a good writer is the judgment about what to write. When people are saying that about an actor, they mean that their voice, their face, their body language, everything is very expressive and interesting. And there is a common writerly impulse to take any statement of “I find [thing] boring” as a challenge, to make it interesting. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good impulse; writing interesting stories is hard enough without being belligerent about things that bore your reader friends.


Recently a friend of mine started reading a fantasy piece with rogues in it, and it started with two annoying characters boasting to each other. “If [bestselling author friend] or [other bestselling auth–oh, fine, she said Scott Lynch and Steve Brust] had written this, they could have pulled it off, they could have made it funny, they could have undermined the annoying characters and shown what jerks they were,” she said, and I said, “Okay, but part of what makes Steve and Scott as successful as they are is that they generally choose not to do that.” They choose not to lead from a disadvantage that’s a boring disadvantage–not “can I make my reader sympathize with this intriguing villain” but “can I make my reader sympathize with a guy who’s like the annoying co-worker they’re glad they left in their last job.” Sure, someone with writing chops is in a better position than a beginner to pull that off. But it’s writing the phone book. It’s challenging for no particularly good reason.


I can’t remember where I read the review that suggested that Lois McMaster Bujold could write another novella between the two recent Penric novellas, in her Chalion universe, that would basically be a training sequence for the protagonist. And…okay, so there is an adage in physics that I think has a parallel here. If a respected, award-winning senior physicist tells you that something is impossible, she may or may not be right; if she tells you that something is possible, listen. In writing, it’s this: if one of the most decorated writers of her genre of all time chooses to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives of her genre, she may or may not have a good reason for it. Genre conventions sink into us all, just as the sense of constraint does in physics. But if she chooses not to do one of the top ten most cliched narratives, to skip over that bit and on to the next, pay attention, there was probably a really good reason why she didn’t find that part interesting enough to focus her time on it. And that’s worth learning from.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ckd
2016-08-13 11:32 pm (UTC)
I could say that I'd read a laundry list if skzbrust wrote it, but, well, I have. (Admittedly with a novel interleaved through it.)
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2016-08-16 07:36 pm (UTC)
And John Varley wrote a story based on the Manhattan phone book -- though I haven't been moved to reread it.
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[User Picture]From: whswhs
2016-08-14 04:58 am (UTC)
Everyone knows Clarke's law, but fewer people know that "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" is actually Clarke's Third Law. The two you cite are his First and Second Laws. I forget which is which.

Actually, twenty years or so back, one of my regular players in tabletop rpgs said, "If Bill offered to run a campaign using the phone book as the game system, his players would go for it." Of course tabletop is somewhere in between "writing" and "acting."
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